Orlando Letelier was driving to work on the morning of September 21, 1976. When he turned into Washington, DC’s Sheridan Circle, a bomb suddenly exploded, propelling his car into the air. Twenty minutes later, Letelier – a former minister and ambassador to the United States in the democratically elected socialist government of Chilean President Salvador Allende, which was violently overthrown in 1973 in a US-backed coup – died. His assistant Ronni Moffitt, a 25-year-old newlywed whose husband was in the backseat, drowned in her own blood less than an hour later.
The car bomb had been planted by the DINA, the secret police under far-right, US-backed Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Among those convicted for the murder were Michael Townley, a CIA agent and professional assassin, and Chilean Gen. Manuel Contreras, former head of the DINA. Townley served just over five years in prison and was then released under the aegis of the US federal witness protection program.
Less than a year before the bombing, Contreras had called a meeting that would forever change the political landscape of Latin America, leading to many more assassination missions.
Intelligence chiefs from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay converged in Santiago on the fateful day of November 25, 1975. The goal of their meeting: collaborate to crush left-wing movements in Latin America. Operation Condor became the program they instituted to accomplish this goal.
Operation Condor was a campaign of systematic repression and assassination of left-wing dissidents, organizers and intellectuals, carried out by US-backed, right-wing dictatorial Latin American governments. Letelier was perhaps the most high-profile of its victims.
Many of the architects of Operation Condor are still alive today, and are only now being punished for their crimes. In 2008, Contreras was sentenced to 289 years in prison. Trials for other implicated officials continue.
National Security Archive analyst Carlos Osorio spent 10 hours at the witness stand in a Buenos Aires trial on March 6 and 7, 2015. Twenty-five high-ranking former military officers involved in Operation Condor were charged with conspiracy to “kidnap, disappear, torture and kill” 171 leftist activists in the 1970s and 1980s.
Osorio introduced 100 documents into evidence for the court proceedings. The National Security Archive obtained government records through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) – principally from the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department. The DINA, the former Chilean secret police, also provided documents.
The documents Osorio presented show how Latin American governments promised to “collaborate in the struggle against subversion” and to ensure the “internment” of leftists. In one of the disclosed documents, a September 1975 State Department intelligence analyst remarked that the “national security forces of the southern cone surpass the terrorists in cooperation at the international level.”
What often goes unmentioned in discussions of Operation Condor, however, is the role of the US government. While the US directly backed the right-wing governments that carried out these human rights violations, it also secretly expressed support for their campaign of state terror against dissidents.
A secret memo consisting of an official transcription of a June 6, 1976, conversation between US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Argentine Foreign Minister Adm. Cesar Guzzetti, obtained by the National Security Archive, exposes the US government’s intentions.
After breaking the ice by talking about soccer for a few minutes, the officials turn to the subject of politics. Kissinger assures the Argentine official that the United States will back the right-wing dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla, which had been established only months before in a coup. “We have followed events in Argentina closely,” Kissinger says. “We wish the new government well. We wish it will succeed. We will do what we can to help it succeed.”
In Videla’s several-years-long campaign of state terrorism, known as the “dirty war,” up to 30,000 leftists were disappeared.
Guzzetti subsequently condemns the foreign press for criticizing his government, claiming, “Press criticism creates problems for confidence. It weakens international confidence in the Argentine government.” Kissinger responds, insisting, “The worst crime as far as the press is concerned is to have replaced a government of the left.”
When asked for economic assistance, the US secretary of state pledges, “We will use our influence in the private sector.” Kissinger then adds, “We have a foreign policy interest in Argentina. We should be able to use our influences. The private sector can be of greatest assistance. I will call David Rockefeller [head of Chase bank]…. And I will call his brother, the vice president.”
After Kissinger suggests that the Argentine government deport the approximately 500,000 refugees, primarily from Chile, who had entered Argentina (and jokes about sending them to join the PLO “terrorists”), Guzzetti brings up Operation Condor, which he describes as the “joint efforts to integrate with our neighbors” in order to confront the “terrorist problem.” Kissinger said the coalition between Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay and Brazil “sound[ed] like a good idea.”
Kissinger assures the Argentine minister, “We want you to succeed. We do not want to harrass [sic] you. I will do what I can.”